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Transnational Children Orchestrating Competing Voices in Multimodal, Digital Autobiographies

by Jessica Zacher Pandya, Kathleah Consul Pagdilao, Aeloch Enok Kim & Elizabeth Marquez - 2015

Background/Context: Prior research on multimodal, digital composition has highlighted the need for educators to bring such practices into classrooms, yet little research has been done to show what kinds of products children create and what those products can tell us as researchers about how children articulate their life experiences. We draw on recent theorizations of transnationalism in relation to immigrant children’s school experiences, and Bakhtinian perspectives on language and ideology, to frame our analysis of the identity work that transnational and immigrant children undertook in the multimodal, digital composition projects we analyze.

Purpose/Objective: We analyzed 18 digital videos made by transnational children aged 8–10, asking what the key features of their narratives told us about what they found important in their lives, what voices were orchestrated in the composition of those narratives, and what voices were omitted. We also asked what students’ narratives told us about who they were and wanted to be, as immigrants or children of immigrants. Finally, we asked what these features and omissions suggested about perspectives on their immigration experiences and current lives.

Research Design: These data come from an ongoing, design-based research project. Qualitative methods were employed, including: interviews with and surveys of children and teachers at various stages of the video production process; collection of children’s written work; collection of children’s videos; and the writing of field notes and analytic memos.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Asking children to write about themselves for teachers, peers, and parents meant asking them to orchestrate multiple voices into potentially contradiction-ridden, yet coherent stories. Our work so far suggests that, at the least, we should expect children to try out new identities, and seek new ways of orchestrating the voices in their lives into a coherent whole. We caution researchers and teachers who work with immigrant youth not to assume that immigration will necessarily be a pivotal moment, or even a central or important moment, to children. We also caution that children may not feel that their school is a safe place to talk about such issues; offering the space is all we can do. The kinds of composition we have described exceed the narrative writing and speaking and listening demands of the Common Core State Standards. Teachers should be aware of the ways multimodal, digital composition can help meet their immigrant students’ self-authoring needs and surpass the demands of the new standards. Finally, to connect with others, to become more aware of one’s place(s) in an increasingly globalized world, and to orchestrate competing voices—these are the potentials for multimodal, digital composition with immigrant youth to which we continue to aspire.

Our team of researchers and teachers recently asked third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students to write autobiographies, and to make multimodal, digital compositions out of those written texts. We have worked with more than 120 children so far, but in this essay we focus our analysis on a subset of 18 digital narratives composed by immigrants and the children of immigrants whose life stories indexed certain transnational traits. When the process of making and sharing the videos came to an end, we began to analyze the stories, asking questions about immigration, authoring, and, ultimately, the functions of omissions in children’s stories. Their narratives contain pointed and veiled references to immigration journeys and other aspects of transnational life; we ultimately argue that children had to learn to orchestrate competing voices as they presented momentary selves to their peers and families in multimodal form.

We initially hypothesized that our analysis of these videos would reveal immigration stories told as “turning points” (Bruner, 1994) in children’s lives. We imagined that immigration, an incredibly large change in a child’s life, might be seen by child narrators as a turning point, a “thickly agentive” moment (Bruner, 1994, p. 50) that had led to new activities and identities.  When we began our analysis of key features, we thought immigration stories would figure prominently. In this assumption, we were following work that suggests that immigrant children need opportunities for storytelling and self-narration in order to recontextualize themselves in their new lives as agentive learners and individuals (Campano, 2007; Destigter, 1998; Genishi & Dyson, 2009; Gutiérrez, Baquedano-Lopez, & Alvarez, 2000). However, while some children used the videos as tools for self-recontextualization, only six of the 18 children specifically mentioned immigration (their own or their parents’) in their autobiographies, and none described the event as a turning point in their lives.  

Instead of uncovering feelings of agency in relation to such key moments, we found primarily that children were adept at navigating competing voices, from injunctions not to speak about where they were born to requests to include as many family photographs as parents could muster and send in to school. These choices were guided by children’s need to include and exclude certain facts and events, and to orchestrate conflicting parent and teacher voices in particular. On the whole, as we will show, children omitted sensitive information in their narratives, perhaps to smooth over troubling issues of their own and their family members’ immigration journeys, documented status, or emotionally taxing family separations. We also saw how the multimodal, digital form of these semi-public compositions engendered a private, intimate narrative, one that allowed students to show and hide the precariousness of aspects of their lives, a double documentation of sorts.

To introduce these issues we begin with the voiceover from 10-year-old Noemi’s video, which she had titled “This is My Story” (to protect participant identities, all names of people and places in this manuscript are pseudonyms, and identifying information in the data has also been modified). We had been working at Esperanza Elementary, a public, bilingual charter school in “SoCal,” a large southern California city, for approximately three months when she made the movie with us. We designed the larger study from which this data is drawn to explore the use of digital video production to complement classroom instruction. Like approximately half of her peers, Noemi was classified as an English language learner (Spanish was her first language), and, like two thirds of ELLs at Esperanza, she lived in socioeconomically disadvantaged circumstances. She had never used an iPad before this project, but, once we explained the general idea of an autobiographical video, she had plenty to say, as her extensive script indicates. Below, we have combined the voiceover (in italics, with all language transcribed as she used it) with information she shared with us in interviews and informal discussions (in regular text, interspersed between Noemi’s words as necessary).

Hi, My name is Noemi. I am a very shy person, but I am outgoing once you get to know me. I am a very funny and playful person. My life had started sad. Then it got better, and better. [My] parents met in a coffee store. My dad asked my mom if she wanted a coffee, and she said yes. They got together, and I was born. I was born in Honduras, on January 14, 2001. The sad part of my life happened when my dad and mom left me with [my] grandmother and [I] got very sick and almost died. I got better, and when I was two, we moved to Miami, then Chicago, Las Vegas, Georgia, and finally, California.

In Noemi’s memory, she and her grandmother, traveling with two uncles, lived in each of these places for three to six months. She has a few memories: “In Chicago, one time it was snowing. And um, in Miami, we went to a beach with my uncles, we hide [sic] from them because they didn’t know we were going to visit them. . . .”

I grew up with my 2 uncles and my grandmother. I started school at Robertson Elementary. Since it was just an English-speaking school, I did not do well. My grandmother decided to change school [sic] for me. When I started second grade I was 7, and I came to Esperanza. I really liked it, because the teacher [sic] are nice and are bilingual. My grandmother was happy too. My teacher has been Nancy since the beginning, and I really miss her. I met my closest friends, Ivana, Carina, Lana, Allegra, and Belinda. Last year my mom had another baby, my brother, Marco. Sadly Marco’s dad was not nice to my mom, and hit her because she would talk to me. She moved on and found a nice man that loved her and right now I am going to have a new baby sister. After my sister is born we are going to go visit my dad in Honduras. I have never met him, and I am really excited.

Noemi’s mother’s new boyfriend José “gave her a house in Mexico that we can live in.” They are going to have a new baby, a sister for Noemi. When Noemi says she will visit her “dad” in Honduras, she is not referring to José, who lives with Noemi’s mother in Mexico, but to her biological father. Noemi has not seen her father or mother in person—not since she was an infant—but she has Skyped with her mother in the past: “we used to have this computer and like she used to have it too on my aunt’s house. And we used to talk.” When we asked Noemi if she would rather live in the United States, or with her mother in Mexico, she said “in Mexico” with no hesitation.

I plan to finish the fifth grade here and then start middle school at Barton Middle School, then go to Roosevelt High School and graduate. I want to continue skateboarding and playing soccer. I also want to go to college and become a teacher teaching elementary. I want to visit Miami, Georgia, Fresno, and Hawaii. Maybe one day I will find a good man and have my own kids. I want to be a cool, nice mom, and I had a sad start to my life, but it is getting better, it will get better if I continue to do good. The end.

Noemi seems rather forthcoming with details about her life, her immigration story, her family situation, and her dreams and hopes for the future. However, as we began to ask questions about her narrative, we realized that it exemplified many of the complexities children encounter when asked to narrate their transnational lives and, where applicable, their immigration stories.  These complexities included not only which factual details to include and which to omit, but how to visually represent events for which children often had no photographs or mementos (as was the case for Noemi, as we will show). In the process of analyzing the narratives in detail, we began to ask:

What do the key features of children’s schematic (or overarching) autobiographical narratives tell us about what immigrant children find important in their own lives? What voices are orchestrated in the composition of those narratives, and what voices are omitted?

What do students’ specific (or individual) digital narratives tell us about who they are and want to be, as immigrants or children of immigrants?

Finally, we asked, what do these features and omissions suggest about children’s perspectives on their immigration experiences and current lives?


In the following sections, we sketch out the main theoretical standpoints from which our research questions and analysis stem.



A text is “multimodal” (Jewitt, 2006; Kress, 2003, 2009; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001) if meaning is expressed through it via multiple modes (i.e., auditory, visual, textual, and/or gestural channels). However, a text can be multimodal without being digital (e.g., a combined song and dance routine). We use the term “multimodal digital composition” to emphasize three things: the potential use of multiple modes of expression, the digital technologies needed to create these texts, and the authorial process of orchestrating (Bakhtin, 1981), or composing, that these projects engender. We focus on this trio of meaning because the rapid increase in the kinds of digital literacy practices available to us have called into question our understandings of literacy acquisition and development (cf. Gillen & Barton, 2010; Leu, 2000), and of authorial authority (Lankshear, Peters, & Knobel, 1996), even as schools continue to hold onto more traditional, and decidedly less digital, definitions of literacy.

The emphasis on traditional literacies in schools has prompted many academic researchers to study multimodal digital composition outside of the classroom (Hull & Stornaiuolo, 2010).

However, recent research has highlighted the need for educators to bring these multimodal digital practices into our classrooms (Alvermann, 2010; Nixon & Gutiérrez, 2007; Robin, 2008; Toohey, Dagenais, & Schulze, 2012; Vasudevan, Schultz, & Bateman, 2010; Warschauer, 2011). Indeed, it is our belief that multimodal digital composing practices offer alternative methods of teaching, learning, production, and assessment that have the potential to disrupt traditional banking systems of education (Ávila & Zacher Pandya, 2012; Collins & Halverson, 2009; Freire, 2000)—the reductive, test-centered system to which most newcomer and immigrant children are exposed. One reason we chose to work at Esperanza, our research site, was because the teachers wanted to integrate digital media projects into their daily curricula in order to provide their students with access to, and participation in, powerful literacies (Finn, 2009). Planning with teachers, we emphasized the act of “designing” texts (Janks, 2010), positioning youth as creators of their own products instead of as merely consumers of, for instance, commercially produced media.  

As a “site of struggle for identity, representation, and rights” (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 725), the classroom is a prime place to understand relationships between children’s identities—as immigrants, second language learners, urban citizens, transnational beings—and their school success (Dyson, 2003; Zacher, 2008). Narrative perspectives on identity argue that our identities are, quite literally, the stories we tell about our selves (Bruner, 1994; Côté & Levine, 2002; Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998; Ochs & Capps, 1996, 2001). Research into digital storytelling—the composition of visual narratives using still or moving images, recorded voice, music, and sound—has shown that multimodal digital composition does indeed offer opportunities for reworking selves, and for rewriting (re-narrating) identities (Buckingham, 2007; Hull & Katz, 2006; Hull & Zacher, 2007; Nixon, 2012/2013; Rogers, Winters, LaMonde, & Perry, 2010).


Of the 18 videos we analyzed for this paper, four (including Noemi’s) were composed by children whom Rumbaut (2006) defines as generation 1.5, “foreign-born persons who arrived in the United States as children under the age of eighteen” (p. 49), and the other 14 were generation 2.0, “persons born in the United States of two foreign-born parents” (ibid.). Children’s direct statements about their own or their parents’ birth countries, mentions of transnational migration patterns in their immediate and extended families (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2006; Levitt & Waters, 2006), and children’s stated plans to go “back to” home countries in the future all pushed us to attend to the ways children’s transnational lives influenced their autobiographies. We also attempted to understand the influence of being transnational—living one’s life across borders, in tangible or intangible ways—on children’s identity work, on their attempts to create transnational, immigrant, or what we term “American” identities in Southern California.

We draw in particular on Sánchez (2007), and Sánchez and Kasun’s (2012) theorization of transnationalism in relation to children’s school experiences to frame identity work in their multimodal, digital autobiographies. For Sánchez (2007), transnationalism “embodies various systems or relationships that span two or more nations, including sustained and meaningful flows of people, money, labor, goods, information, advice, care, and love” (p. 493). Such children might have a “fluid sense of national identity” (Salomone, 2010, p. 53), and may not fully embrace or assimilate “American” culture, however one defines it. We do not discount the role of globalization and its attendant “expanded imagination of life possibilities” (Appadurai, 2008) in this process, and indeed we saw traces of the American Dream in various guises in children’s videos. To understand the potential ambivalence engendered by the fluidity of transnational practices, we follow Sánchez and Kasun’s (2012) suggestion to view transnationalism as a set of “social practices by people who engage more than one national context with some depth of familiarity, through activities . . . and the exchange of goods, information, and accumulated local knowledges between countries” (p. 75). We strove to identify these social practices of transnationalism when they were mentioned or displayed in children’s videos.

While we were not privy to the immigration status of participating students, and we acted in accordance with our Institutional Review Board’s guidelines for protecting the rights of research subjects, we knew that some students at Esperanza were unauthorized, mirroring statistical trends in the United States, where approximately two million of the 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants are children (as of March 2008; Passell & Cohn, 2008). In the course of our work we also learned about specific children’s statuses, as we will explain in our findings section. We believe that opportunities for storytelling and self-narration are critical because they may ameliorate some of the many risk factors transnational students may face (Genishi & Dyson, 2009; Hull, Zacher, & Hibbert, 2009). Risk factors are high enough for legal immigrant students; they are almost always higher, and worse, for unauthorized immigrant children (Suàrez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi, & Suárez-Orozco, 2011). Unauthorized immigrants are less likely to ask for help or advice from their teachers and school officials (Morse & Ludovina, 1999; Willshire Carrera, 1989) and less likely to receive adequate health care services (Passell, 2005). At the same time, they are more at risk for educational problems (Gándara & Contreras, 2009; Valdés, 2001) and more likely to have suffered physical or emotional trauma as part of their immigration experience (Suàrez-Orozco, 2005; Suàrez-Orozco, Bang, & Kim, 2011). Because they and their parents are an invisible minority, often living in fear of exposure, we know relatively little about such children’s school experiences, and less about how school successes may lead to less risky life situations. We designed this study to take those factors into account, and to offer children—authorized or unauthorized—multiple opportunities to narrate themselves and their changing identities in a politically and economically unstable world. We have followed the guidelines of our Institutional Review Board to protect the anonymity of our student subjects, changing names and places, and, as we discuss below, protecting those children who spoke about their undocumented status to us.    


Bakhtinian perspectives on language and ideology undergirded our work with transnational children creating multimodal, digital compositions about their immigration stories and lives in America as immigrants and children of immigrants. Bakhtin (1981) wrote that “as a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language . . . lies on the border between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s” (p. 293). In their videos, and in their conversations with us about their videos, we saw children at Esperanza struggle to appropriate other peoples’ language, other peoples’ words about immigration, and to make them their own. Language is never neutral, and always comes from somewhere—parents, teachers, peers, television, the Internet. Composing the videos afforded children spaces of self-authoring, spaces in which they could take up and repopulate other peoples’ words and ideas with their own intentions.

This self-authoring required what Holland and colleagues (1998) describe as an “orchestration or arrangement of voices” (p. 211). Children had to work to repopulate other peoples’ heteroglossic—multi-voiced, mixed, complicated—voices about immigration and life in America with their own intentions. At the same time, they had to orchestrate these voices—sometimes “reminders of earlier selves,” always “socially inscribed heteroglossic” (p. 178)—into a (temporarily, at least) coherent narrative. In interviews with us about their videos, children described being swayed most by the voices of parents and teachers, who have what Bakhtin would call ideologically laden voices (1981, p. 343), but they also mentioned the influences of voices of peers and other family members. To explore how these voices were instantiated in the videos themselves, we identified the schematic structures and specific features of narrative (Erstad & Wertsch, 2009). Children’s videos tended to share a typical schematic structure or narrative template (e.g., beginning at birth, then discussing the school enrollment, the current moment, and future plans), but were composed of different specific events (e.g., a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s or the birth of a sibling). We saw the schematic structures of children’s narratives as ideological battlegrounds, as places where children orchestrated different, competing, conflicting voices about their pasts and present situations.

The more we analyzed videos—in the ways we describe in the next section—the more we saw secrets and gaps as necessary steps in satisfying the different ideological points of view, embodied in different voices, that children struggled to orchestrate. All narratives contain secrets, Kermode (1980) argues; most readers are content to ignore secrets as they enjoy the clarity and propriety of a story. As researchers, we wanted to understand what secrets disturbed the narrative sequence of events children presented (e.g., why did Noemi’s parents leave her in Honduras with her grandmother?), and, further, why these secrets were hidden. So, in addition to analyzing the voices children were orchestrating and the schematic features of their narratives, we examined the incompletes, silences, gaps, and secrets that the narratives presented (Kermode, 1980; Schaafsma & Vinz, 2011, p. 79). We turn next to a discussion of our precise analytic steps.



The digital videos analyzed in this paper were created by children participating in an ongoing, design-based research project (Design Based Research Collective, 2003; Cobb et al., 2003). For over two years now, we have worked with five third- to fifth-grade teachers at a public charter school to implement digital video projects into their daily curricula (cf. Ranker, 2008). These include personal digital videos and group videos about a range of topics, from the closing of a local high school to diaries written by historical characters. Esperanza is a Spanish–English, dual immersion, child-centered school with a long wait list; children are grouped into three age ranges: K–2, 3–5, and 6–8.  Seventy percent of students are Latino/a, 13% White, 10% African American, 2% “two or more races,” and 1% are Asian. All non-Latino/a students are native English speakers, and 60% of the Latino/a students are labeled as English language learners (ELLs). Sixty-six percent of all students receive free and reduced-price lunches; Esperanza is a Title I school. We do not know the percentage of students whose families immigrated to the United States before they were born, or who came here as young children (this data is not collected at the school site). Students occasionally mention issues of documented status to us in conversation or in interviews, and we make every effort to protect their anonymity in such cases. One way we have done this is by redacting information about such students in our notes, to make them unrecognizable, even to someone familiar with the site itself. Another way we have done this is by leaving out particular children’s mentions of status that are not critical to our analysis. These actions forestall any potential endangerment of individual children and their families and yet allow us to speak more generally of documented status when needed. Our research team continues to work at the school at least twice a week, planning with teachers or facilitating small groups of students writing and designing print- and multimodal texts.

We work with approximately 75 children per year, although for this paper we use only the stories of 18 children who immigrated to the United States themselves or whose parents immigrated, and who explicitly mentioned immigration in their autobiographies. These videos were made during a larger unit about “origins,” in which students traced their own and their families’ origins in Spanish and English language arts, social studies, and art classes. The five teachers required students to write autobiographical essays in which they described their parents’ meetings, their births, and their subsequent lives; these essays were presented to parents at the end-of-term conference. To prepare students to write their essays and eventual digital compositions, all of the teachers began by reading segments of autobiographies to their students and holding discussions about what kinds of details authors included. Then, teachers provided students with some kind of narrative structure for their written autobiographies. Two teachers asked students to organize their narratives with specific sentence starters: “in the beginning . . .” and “then . . .”  and “finally . . . .” Another gave an initial prompt to “start by writing about when your parents met” and then “tell how you came into the world.” One asked children to write about key events in their lives after having them sketch those events on a timeline. The last teacher simply had children write about what they thought were the most important parts of their lives, in chronological order. Although the structures are different, the products were fairly similar in overall content, albeit with some variation in opening and closing formats and in the amount of detail children included.  For the purposes of our analysis, the small differences in structure were less important than the overall teacher voice behind the assignment. This pedagogical voice, which we discuss below in much more detail, asked students to tell as much as they could about themselves without compromising any information their parents would not like them to include (such as immigration status, parental age, etc.).

These were the first digital videos students had made in this project, and for most of them, the first video they had ever made. We worked with small groups of children continuously, in a staggered fashion, so that after we began, we worked with children at all different stages of the process (scripting, storyboarding, drawing images, taking pictures of their photos with the iPads, assembling, recording voices and video, etc.) in the same room. We initially helped children craft scripts from their autobiographies, asking, “What do you want to say about yourself first?” or “What do you want people to hear about you first in your video?” This process got complicated once children began storyboarding—matching images to their scripted words—because many realized they did not have photographs or images that conveyed the events they wanted to share. Some ended up drawing images, others changed the contents of their scripts, and others just used photographs they had, regardless of how well they matched the scripts.  Thus, while we would like to say with certainty that the structures provided by teachers for written autobiographies impacted the content of students’ digital videos, we are unable to do so. We are also unable to pinpoint the extent of our own influence as facilitators of the video-making process, since children only sometimes listened to our advice. The entire process was rapidly paced, and we helped children and collected data at the same time, with the goal of having all children make their videos to share with parents at their fall parent conferences. In the end, all children did make videos and were able to share them with parents and family members at conferences.


(1) Eighteen digital videos. The stories range in length from 0:55 to 3:30 minutes. Thirteen were narrated in English, five in Spanish. Ten of the 18 videos were designed by girls, and about a third were made by children in each grade (3–5).

(2) Interviews with students about their digital videos, mainly in-depth questioning about images, words, and music choice, but including background questions as needed.

(3) Students’ written work: notes, drafts, storyboards, scripts, final autobiographies (written as a separate assignment), and notes made on scripts during the production process.

(4) Field notes written about every composing event in which at least one of us participated, and about other events in which we participated (e.g., school assemblies).


Analysis began when we identified those digital videos that included narratives of immigration. As part of our larger project’s analysis, our first step was to make multimodal transcripts of each story (Flewitt, Hampel, Hauck, & Lancaster, 2008; Hull & Nelson, 2005), using the image as the main unit of analysis and including rows in our transcripts for: time, spoken words, written text (on screen), motion/movement (in videos embedded in the stories), student interview comments, notes on differences between written scripts and the digital story, and our interpretations. In some cases, the act of creating the multimodal transcripts—especially when we juxtaposed children’s voiceovers with their interview comments about each image and their words—indicated narrative aspects that we would not otherwise have seen or heard. For instance, Noemi had no photographs of her parents or siblings, but in her video, as she talked about her parents meeting, she showed a photo of two Latino adults, the man holding a little girl of about 2 years of age, with Noemi’s hair color, on his shoulders. She told us in an interview that this picture was actually of her grandparents, with her grandfather holding Noemi’s mother on her shoulders.

We then devised and applied a series of strategies to analyze the specifics and schematics of each narrative. We started by marking our written transcripts of children’s voiceovers for schematic features. We coded six of them jointly, to establish baseline features, and the rest on our own for later comparison. At the end, we had agreed on a set of 14 schematic features that indexed events or categories of importance to children (which we describe in our findings section). Next, we made a chart cross-listing these schematic features with each child’s specific narrative, noting the gaps and omissions in each. We also left a separate row in which we could list any questions we had about a narrative. At first we had thought our chart would be a mirroring activity, with schematic features either present (e.g., in the “birthplace” section, David had said “I was born in Guatemala”) or absent. However, we soon realized that the presentation of some information often led us to ask as many questions as the absence of any information. For instance, Luna said she was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, and then moved to Mexico; we wondered: When did she move to Mexico? How long did she live there? Why? Did both parents accompany her, or just one?      

Finally, we coded the entire corpus of data using a loose form of constant comparative analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) in dedoose, an online mixed methods software program similar to atlas.ti or NVivo (dedoose.com). To answer our questions, we began by identifying the voices children orchestrated, settling on these: parents, other family members, teachers, and peers (we describe these voices in our findings section). To answer our questions about identity, immigration, and omissions, we coded for the following categories: immigration stories, identity markers, students’ comments on their present and future lives, family, markers of poverty, and omissions/secrets/gaps. For the purposes of this paper, we used coded data excerpts to triangulate our findings from the previous analytic steps of making multimodal transcripts and tracing schematic and specific features of children’s video narratives. These comparisons led to more robust descriptions of the voices children orchestrated, and the schematic features of their narratives; ultimately, we felt we had exhaustively examined the omissions in children’s narratives, and had met our goal of understanding the role of omissions in the structure of narratives and in relation to children’s lived worlds.



In this section, we describe our findings in two parts, first describing the schematic or overarching features of children’s narratives in order to provide an overview of what children wanted to report about themselves (and what they did not want to say), as well as what voices we heard in the inclusion or exclusion of these features. In the second half, we turn to issues of identity, focusing on the specific identities children authored in the course of composing their individual digital narratives, as well as the competing voices they orchestrated in this process.


We generated 14 key schematic features in our analysis, which we list here not in order of appearance in videos, because their placement varied widely, but in descending order of use across the 18 videos. We have marked each of the features that seemed relevant to immigration with an asterisk *:



Self-description: 17/18


Family makeup*: 15/18


Child and parent birthplaces*: 13/18


Age/birthday: 12/18 (7 mention birthday, 4 age, 1 both age and birthday)


School (including teachers), friends: 10/18


Where parents are from*: 9/18


Happy memories: 9/18


Future: 8/18


Parents’ meeting*: 6/18


Immigration journey*: 6/18


Pets: 3/18


Where other family members are from*: 1/18


Impetus for immigration*: 1/18


Language used in video script and narration*: 13 English, 5 Spanish

While many components on the list might be typical of any child’s autobiography—where they were born, how old they are, where their parents met, their pets, happy memories—other categories were immigration-specific (impetus of immigration, immigration journey). And we found that other components, about family origins, family makeup, and language of narration, were critical in our attempt to trace family immigration stories and transnational identities. The topic of immigration and its impetus were seldom referenced. In fact, only a third of the students talked about a journey and only one student gave a reason for immigrating to the United States. The other three immigration-specific features (parents’ meeting, where parents were from, and where other family members were from) were only discussed by a fraction of authors. Many more students talked about their family makeup and where they had been born. To give a flavor of these schematic elements, we have illustrated some of the most provocative here, noting when and where we saw different voices being orchestrated as children assembled their narratives.

Self-description: “When I was little . . .”

The most consistent schematic element was self-description. Self-description illustrated either a present or past self. In the present, 13 children made brief videos of themselves that they included at the start and sometimes the end of their autobiographies. These were usually unscripted statements like “My name is Marina. I’m gonna tell you about my story,” but occasionally a student used the video to say aloud the first lines of their script. Six students—all girls—included descriptions of their past selves. For example, Nelly’s only self-description was about entering a new school: “I was a shy girl, but it turned out really fun.” Some of these descriptions were clear revoicings of parental comments, discursive remarks into which children had been socialized by narrative patterns at home (Miller, 1994), such as when Rosalie remarked that her “mom said that she dressed me like a doll and every day I was a new princess,” or when Delicia said, “My mom was proud because I was her first baby and they loved me very much.” Students also described themselves in terms of their favorites, such as Ryan’s favorite anime character “Gir”; their personality characteristics, like Noemi, who said she was “a very funny and playful person”; and what they liked to do, including, as Iris said, “going places with my family and my ‘Say Yes’ program.”

Family Makeup, Fathers, and Split Families

Most children discussed their families in some detail, marking families as important and worthy of note, and marking peer voices about families as worthy of orchestration into autobiographies. Indeed, after self-description, students talked the most about family makeup and living situations. As they described their families, students also mentioned immigration journeys and split families, although those mentions often prompted more questions on our part than they gave answers. For instance, Rosalie defined her larger familial context, noting, “My family is my mom Letitia and my second mom Andrea. My second sister is [sic] Ivette and Sara. My second papa is Ulises.” Of the 15 students who discussed family makeup, eight talked about their fathers (nine if we include Rosalie’s “second papa”). In contrast, 12 of 15 mention their mothers. The exclusion of fathers in students’ narratives brought up many questions: Where are the fathers? What role did they or do they have in their children’s lives? The absence of fathers called to mind questions of secrets and gaps. Did students deliberately leave out their dads? We wondered about divorces and conflicts about which the children themselves might have been unaware.

Split families were equally common: Noemi had a mother in Mexico and father in Honduras; Marina had grandparents in Mexico who raised her until age 5; and Luna’s mom was in Mexico. Family divisions seemed to reflect both changes in family dynamics as a result of conflict (e.g., Noemi: “Sadly, Marco’s dad was not nice to my mom”) and the effects of immigration (e.g., Marina left her abuelo and abuelita when she came to California). Certainly, split families are a feature of immigration—someone stays behind, or is left behind, in the hopes of reunification later, when things are financially more solvent (see, e.g., Hondagneu-Sotelo & Ávila, 1997; Nazario, 2007). Juan, who mentions having “sisters in El Salvador,” does not say anything else about them, and seems to see their location in El Salvador as just part of his family’s geography, when he notes, “My sister was born in El Salvador and my two tios were born in SoCal. I have family in Moreno Valley, in Tecate, and close to my house. I also have sisters in El Salvador.” Pedro mentioned his father and included him in a drawing of his family, but told us in his interview that his father lived in Mexico.

Given the wide variety of types of comments about family situations and family members, we argue that the overarching voice that children seemed to be orchestrating in this aspect of their narratives was not about family specifics, but a broader imperative to talk about one’s family. We heard this voice come from teachers, with specific instructions to write about families; from peers, who asked about family information as children drafted scripts; and from families, who often asked explicitly to be included in the videos.  

Child and Parent Birthplaces

The third most oft-discussed component in the schematic narrative was students’ and parents’ birthplaces. Of the 13, nine said that they were born in the United States (five in SoCal, two elsewhere in California, one in Washington state, one in Las Vegas) and four were born in other countries (Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras). Of the nine children who said where their parents were from, all were children born in the United States (generation 2.0); seven had parents from “Mexico” (or specific towns or states in Mexico); Juan’s mother was from El Salvador, but his father was from Mexico; and Olivia’s father was from Costa Rica. Students often indirectly illustrated immigration journeys through their descriptions of their own and their siblings’ and parents’ birthplaces. Juan, for example, stated that his mother was born in El Salvador and his father was born Mexico; he, however, was born in SoCal. Likewise, Octavio’s birth in Washington contrasts with his parents’ births in Mexico. Imelda describes how her “dad and mom met in Mexico . . . and came to the United States.” She follows this statement by sharing how her parents “had my big sister . . . me . . . my little sister . . . [and] little chubby brother,” implying U.S. birthplaces. Delicia did not say where she was born in her video, but told us in an interview that her mother was pregnant with her when her parents came to the United States.

As we mapped the geographies of students’ lives, more questions arose: When did their parents come to the United States? Why did they come? How did they come? Such questions brought us back to our larger research questions: What functions did these omissions serve? What voices were children orchestrating? We surmised that it might well be the case that the 2.0 children were more comfortable talking about their parents’ home countries because those places were more talked about at home, or there was more travel to and from the parents’ home countries, and indeed the three videos we labeled as “transnational” were made by 2.0 children, the children of immigrants. Or, it may be the case that narratives of immigration and American life circulate more or more freely in their homes than in less-established immigrant homes, where, for different reasons, parental countries of origin may be seldom discussed. In any case, the competing voices children had to orchestrate to narrate themselves for this project were clearer and louder for the 2.0 children in regards to talking about where their parents were born.

Immigration Journey and Impetus

At the other end of the numerical spectrum, only six students mentioned a journey to the United States—either their own or that of a family member. Marina shared how she cried because she left her doll (and possibly her grandparents) when she went to California. Nelly and Delicia each revoiced their parents’ stories about immigrating, explaining how their mothers were pregnant with them when they came from Mexico to the United States. Luna talked about how she moved to Mexico after being born in Las Vegas, and then back to the United States. Imelda shared her parents’ journey from Mexico to the United States. Finally, Noemi’s journey seems the most involved, as she moved from Honduras to Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas, Georgia, and finally California. Only two of these students—Marina and Noemi—mentioned adjustment to school, which we had thought would be a major element in an immigration story. While we expected that an impetus for immigration would be present for the three girls who shared their own immigration stories, only Marina gave a reason for her journey. Even then, the impetus was linked to a family event (her brother’s birth), and she did not elaborate on the impetus. Do students know, then, why they move from one place to another? Are they too young to be told, to understand, or do parents not explain? Is this a way of containing possible secrets?

Language Used in Script and Narration

Although 13 students narrated in English, and five in Spanish, we are not able to claim that the language used in videos was a definitive identity marker, because students had different options for language of narration depending on their teacher’s requirements. Rosalie narrated in Spanish but was equally capable of writing a script and narrating a video in English. Delicia told us that she had been asked to write and narrate in English, but would have preferred Spanish “because I speak more Spanish than English,” although she told us this in an English-language interview with a bilingual interviewer who had spoken to her in Spanish before. Imelda wrote her script in English in order, she told us, to learn more of the language. Luna, Susana, and Josue were all more comfortable writing and speaking in Spanish, but the identities they displayed through images and narration were mixed, with only Luna (and Delicia) appearing as “transnational,” and Susana, Josue, and Rosalie presenting more “American” identities (see below). Pedro, whose autobiography was framed as a transnational narrative, wrote his story in English and told us he chose it because “I take forever to speak in Spanish . . . and I like English.” The three students whose autobiographies were framed as immigration narratives spoke in English, for prosaic reasons: Marina said, “I was gonna write in Spanish, but since I did a page in English, I had to keep on writing in English,” and Noemi and Nelly’s teacher just told them to write in English. Of the 13 who wrote in English, we found Spanish words in two students’ stories: Marina referred to her abuelita, abuelito, and tía, and Juan referred to his tío and his sobrinos. In other words, our findings about language use and identity were somewhat inconclusive.

Voices of Parents, Other Family Members, Teachers, Researchers, and Peers

In the course of our analysis, we listed the main competing, conflicting voices we saw and read children attempting to orchestrate: parents, other family members, teachers, researchers, and peers. From our interviews and the videos themselves, we learned that parents offered positive and negative perspectives on immigration, and that some told children not to talk about where they were born. Some had pride in their home countries and a desire to return, shared with (if not by) children. Many had gone back home and taken some or all children, or had left some behind in one place or another. Overall, many parents emphasized the importance of honoring and maintaining family ties. Family members sometimes talked about their own transnational journeys and the multiple locations of extended family, but others were silent about family members’ locations.

Teachers’ voices were quite different: They taught native Spanish speakers in Spanish, opening space for linguistic acceptance and pride, and offered classes in Aztec dance and other culturally relevant activities (Baile Folklórico, etc.). They made children participate in school-wide events that celebrated many languages and cultures, and used bilingual signage in their classrooms (of special note to us because of the critical role language maintenance plays in children’s sense of themselves as transnational citizens). Teachers were also reluctant to talk about children’s specific birthplaces to avoid what they saw as potential ethical issues in relation to children’s documented statuses. As we noted above, some teachers asked students to write using specific structures (e.g., in the beginning . . . then . . . finally . . .). Children sometimes had to orchestrate these different structures, but occasionally, as we note above, they wrote as the teacher asked and then created different spoken narratives entirely when they began composing multimodally—that is, some children avoided having to orchestrate aspects of teacher voices by simply ignoring their teacher-directed written texts.

Although we as researchers deferred to teachers’ requirements whenever students pressed us for directions about their written texts, our presence was the impetus for the project. In our analysis, we hypothesized that our presence affected child authors as they shaped and shared the stories of their lives. Some students, like Noemi, saw us as potentially receptive audiences and may have written more for us; others may have censored themselves because they knew we would read and hear their stories. Thus, researcher voices—what children thought we wanted them to say, that is—were among those that children needed to account for first, and then orchestrate, as they composed.

Finally, peer voices—which we heard a lot about, in the classroom and in interviews—offered another range of ideas to orchestrate. We documented very few instances of children pressuring their peers to include or exclude information; they were more likely to pressure peers to use different effects, transitions, titles, or to make videos to use within their videos. All the same, children were surrounded by a variety of peer voices about what to include: some talked a lot about where and when they were born. Some talked about different family structures, while others said little. Children came from different linguistic backgrounds and had different aptitudes for and opinions on Spanish speaking in school. Some children missed absent parents, while others had large families here. As this brief sketch shows, child composers in this project had to negotiate many conflicting and competing voices as they made their videos.


To build on our analysis of the schematic features children used as they narrated themselves in their videos, our second research question focused on what students’ specific, or individual, digital autobiographies told us about who they were and wanted to be, as immigrants or children of immigrants, and as individuals. As we analyzed children’s identity work in their videos—from a Bakhtinian perspective, the ways they authored versions of themselves—unknowns kept cropping up. These unknowns were not facts unknown to us as audience members, but rather past, present, and future events that were (as far as we could tell) unknown to the children themselves. These unknowns threaded through narratives, underlay almost all omissions, and seemed to us to be the defining feature of the immigrant autobiography. We ultimately found that children managed the unknowns in their lives through their videos in innovative ways, displaying transnational, immigrant, and American identities, and offering alternately ambivalent and hopeful futures in the face of past and present adversities.

We recognize the limits of reading identity categories onto others, especially children, who were not always able to articulate the reasons behind their choices—they were only 8, 9, or 10 years old—and when we were uncertain, we relied on our larger analytic frame to make claims that were justifiable within our data set. While we read all of these children’s lives as “transnational” in that they and their parents did lead lives across borders and did engage in the transnational practices we described above, we set specific parameters for how we would classify the identities children displayed in their videos, criteria that we discuss below. In our analysis we only read five of the videos as conveying transnational identities (Luna, Delicia, Juan, Pedro, and Yessica). Another three (Noemi, Marina, and Nelly) focused on immigration experiences. In the largest set, each of the 10 videos offered a more assimilated or “American” identity.

Transnational Identities

Luna, a quiet and shy girl, had once lived in Mexico—her parents moved her from Las Vegas to Mexico, and then back again—and her mother continued to live in Mexico at the time of her video composition (her father had “sent” her mom there, for reasons that were not clear). When we interviewed her to explore a second video she made with us, about a novel in which the male protagonist is halfway around the world away from his mother, she said that she could identify with the boy’s feelings of worry and loss: “Well, yeah, because like, I’m here, and my mom is over there.” Her choice of image to represent the mother in that second video was of a woman crying, and she gave the boy the lines “I hope I see my mom again. I wonder if I will come back home and see my mom again.” We took Luna’s revoicing of that particular fictional character’s emotions as her way of expressing her ambivalence in relation to her mother. Luna misses her, and would perhaps rather be with her, but Luna lives here with her father and brother, and her friends and school are here, and her mother may come back, some day. As she said in her video: “Now I live with my dad. I go to Esperanza because my dad sent my mom to Mexico. We went with my mom to Mexico” but then came back, without her. Luna never spoke about her mother outside of these videos and our interviews, in which she only said the comment above, a descriptive one about her location vis-à-vis her mother’s. Luna’s teachers did not know why her mother was in Mexico, and she said she did not know when her mother might come back. We did not know if Luna knew more and would or could not say, or if she did not know more—in either case, the video exemplifies some of the gaps and unknowns visible in transnational children’s self-authoring attempts.

Delicia, one of the others who made a “transnational” video, described how she enjoyed spending time with her friends and playing with her bunnies. She also loved her six pet puppies and trips to Disneyland. Her interests and lifestyle are not that different from any other American child. However, despite this seeming assimilation into American life, she suggested a transnational identity via her use of the Mexican flag (and no American flag) in her video, which she used “cause it represented that I wanted to go to Mexico,” and via her stated desire to travel “to live in Mexico D.F.” to reunite with her extended family in the future. Levitt and Waters (2006 caution against reading too much into such wishes, since second-generation immigrants “are still too young to know what kind of relationship they will have with their ancestral homelands. They may express strong attachments and formulate plans to act on them in the future, but it is impossible to predict what they will actually do” (p. 3). Several other children in our sample also expressed desires to go “back to” Mexico to visit family (though few had actually been there thus far, whether due to finances or documented statuses of family members, or both, we could not tell). We hypothesize that expressing a wish to return is an orchestration of parental voices telling children about the centrality of home countries in all of their lives; we also think that these parental voices may convey the importance of the family being together in the future, in this country or the last (or next) one.       

Immigrants with Stories

Three children explicitly used immigration stories in their videos—their own (Noemi and Marina) and their parents’ (Nelly)—as the centerpieces of their autobiographical narratives. Noemi coped with multiple adversities, including a twice-split family, immigration via four different U.S. states, and poverty, by narrating it as always “getting better,” and by putting a positive spin on events when she could. This is, we argue, a 10-year-old girl’s revoicing of the American Dream, complete with the following happy ending:

I also want to go to college and become a teacher teaching elementary. I want to visit Miami, Georgia, Fresno, and Hawaii [which she had not yet visited]. Maybe one day I will find a good man and have my own kids. I want to be a cool, nice mom, and I had a sad start to my life, but it is getting better, it will get better if I continue to do good.

However, in the process of relating her autobiography, and disclosing a surfeit of personal events, Noemi also omitted facts that remain mysteries to us as external viewers: Where is her father? She said she wanted to visit him in Honduras when her mother’s baby was born, but the two events did not seem to be related. Why did her grandmother bring her north, or why did her mother let her grandmother bring her? Do her mother and new stepfather plan to come north, or ask for her back? It’s not that we want answers to these questions so much as we believe they highlight the unknowns in Noemi’s life, unknowns about her living situation that shadowed her present and future. Based on our interviews with her, we do not think that Noemi knew the answers to most of these questions. It was not a case of keeping things private at school, but instead of trying to orchestrate teachers’ demands to tell a story with her own desire to sound and feel knowledgeable about her past and present, as well as her future.

Nelly began her video with her parents’ immigration journey, complete with an account of how her father had been a bull rider in Mexico, a profession her mother thought was too dangerous. She said her mother told her father to give it up, and that, soon after he did, they moved to the United States. Her father’s change in employment may have been the family’s impetus for immigration—without interviewing her parents, we will not know. At the least it shows us that Nelly took her parents’ voices and histories into account when orchestrating her own story. In the video, we learn that her mother was pregnant with her when they came to the United States. The latter half of the video details events in her life in the United States after that point: her birth, her siblings’ births, her entrance into preschool, and then Esperanza. Because she made her parents’ immigration story central to her own autobiography, we classified hers as an “immigrant” identity (in this instantiation).


We termed the third group “Americans,” although they themselves seldom used that word. Instead, they represented a sense of Americanness through descriptions of their favorite activities, restaurants, television shows, books, and other cultural elements. Few of these 10 children shared their familial origins or immigration stories, and none of them mentioned potential returns to their parents’ or their own native countries. We do not mean that these children were actually stepping away from Latino/a identities, or from hyphenated -American identities, but that in their videos they elided where they came from in favor of discussing their current, somewhat acontextualized, circumstances. Take Octavio’s story as an example: While he did mention his parents’ birthplaces in the middle of his story (mom: Zacatecas; dad: Mexico), the rest of his story was an emphatically “American” list. His favorite cartoon was Sonic the Hedgehog; his favorite game was Super Smash Brothers; his favorite book was Diary of the Wimpy Kid (Kinney, 2007); his favorite food was McDonald’s—specifically the McChicken; he liked to play at Chuck E. Cheese’s; and, whether or not he had ever been there, he professed a love of going to Disneyland.

Other indicators of “Americanness” we saw by the 10 students in this category included Iris’ picture of her future family, which she found by Googling “family” and choosing the first picture she saw: a white family who looked little like her own actual family that she showed in many photos in the video. She said in her interview that she used it because it was a “big” family and she wanted a big family when she grew up, but we also read it as an attempt to index Americanness in what she perceived to be socially more acceptable image. Many children pointed to Disneyland as a favorite location, and many included generic pictures of Minnie and Mickey Mouse from the Internet as well as specific pictures of themselves there with family members. The last discursive move children made that indicated a sense of American identity was a lack of Latino/a or Hispanic identity markers. None spoke about, or showed, anything related to Mexico or Central America (their families’ countries of origin) other than the rare mention about where their parents were born (i.e., Octavio). For example, Imelda described how her parents met in Mexico and then noted that she and three of her siblings were born in the United States—she did not say anything else about Mexico in her story.


In the course of our analysis, we first tracked the schematic features we saw in children’s narratives, from ubiquitous self-descriptions to more rare discussions of the impetus for immigration. Our findings suggest that children found it important to talk about (in descending order) themselves, their families, their birthplaces, birthdays, ages, school, happy memories, their futures, where their parents met, and their own (or their parents’) immigration journeys. Few children wrote about their pets and where other family members were from, and only one mentioned her family’s reasons for immigrating, and even that description was incomplete. The nature of the assignment was such that children had room to maneuver; if they did not want to be more specific about immigration, or about their parents’ meeting, no matter the reason, they did not have to be. It also allowed children to briefly reference a variety of events—immigration, the births of siblings, or the absence of a parent—without having to add details that they either did not know or did not want to share.  

After we looked at schematic features, we considered the voices that were orchestrated or omitted in children’s compositions. Writing, especially autobiographical writing, in which authors write identities as they write scripts, is an exercise in taking other peoples’ words and voices and making them one’s own. We found that as children wrote their scripts and composed their digital videos, they negotiated, and ultimately orchestrated, specific voices. Parent and teacher voices dominated their videos—this was, after all, a school project about family life, and parents sent in photos for it. However, peer voices were often equally influential, and had to be accounted for, especially in the composition of the videos in school, when peers helped one another, listened to one another’s in-process work, and offered suggestions about one another’s videos. We mapped the inclusion and exclusion of these voices in our analysis where possible, but, as we have attempted to show, in many cases absences of information were the only indicators that particular voices had been heeded, or orchestrated, in the whole.

When we turned from our schematic analysis to look at the identities children narrated in their individual digital compositions, we found three kinds of identities on display: transnational, immigrant, and American. We use the term “display” here purposefully, since this was a chance for children to show a version of themselves to peers, in class presentations of movies; to parents at conferences; and to families, when they took their DVDs home. Children knew their videos would be public from the start of the project, and we hypothesize that this public pressure led them to be particularly careful when orchestrating different voices in their narratives. Thus, as they managed external pressures—voices that we list below—children also constructed identities that suited them in this moment, for this assignment. A video like Noemi’s can thus be seen as her attempt to repopulate external discourses about immigrant and even migrant children with her own intentions, her own version of her life story.  

Finally, we asked what our analysis of features, orchestration, and omission suggests about children’s perspectives on their immigration experiences and current lives. Our somewhat limited findings—we only analyzed 18 videos—show that children framed their lives in the United States from generally optimistic standpoints. Given the chance to describe their lives, children offered positive statements and sentiments about America, about their schools, and about their family situations. Even Noemi, whose autobiography describes a difficult life, full of transitions further and further away from parents and all that she knew, ended her video on a positive note: “I had a sad start to my life, but it is getting better, it will get better if I continue to do good.” Some of the positive perspectives children voiced—like Noemi’s—might be a result of following the conventions of the autobiographical genre; even so, we think it is critical for immigrant children to have the chance to frame their present senses of self, and their life stories-to-date, in as positive a light as they can.


Our study has several implications for research and practice, and we discuss them here by topic, beginning with the issue of orchestration, which was key to our analysis.  


Throughout this essay, we have drawn on Bakhtin’s concept of orchestration to invoke and make central the dialogic nature of human language, specifically the ways that “our thought itself . . . is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought” (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 92). Any utterance, Bakhtin writes—and we have taken the liberty of extending beyond the utterance to the entire digital composition—“is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the utterance” (ibid.). Our analysis of the schematic elements we saw in children’s videos was our first method of accounting for such dialogic overtones as we attempted to understand children’s utterances in context. Asking children to write about themselves for teachers, peers, and parents meant asking them to orchestrate multiple voices into potentially “contradiction-ridden” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 272) yet coherent stories. We are still trying to puzzle out the effects of our presence as researchers and our demands for storytelling on children’s compositions. While we may have offered more freedom from traditional narrative structures than teachers, who had made students write linear stories, we were present, demanding that students make videos about themselves.  

We engaged in this work with children from the standpoint that our identities are not fixed, but change over time, and change with and through the stories we tell about ourselves (Appiah, 1994; Hall, 1996; Holland et al., 1998). From this perspective, we feel that we as adults owe it to children to offer them chances to author themselves (and, in later years of the project to re-author themselves). The orchestrations that resulted from participants’ navigation of these fraught waters offered momentary identities. We used the terms “transnational,” “immigrant,” and “American” with some misgivings, given the terms’ laden histories, but we felt that each digital composition offered us as viewers a window onto children’s sense of self in the moment of composition.

Next year, when we return to work with many of the same children, we expect that they will present different identities, and we may well need new terms and new questions to ask in our interviews. We continue to converse with teachers and the principal about ways to share children’s videos; one plan is to have more large-scale sharing events, where children view their and their peers’ videos, offer commentaries, and think about changes they will make to their next videos. Our work so far suggests that, at the least, we should expect children to try out new identities, and seek new ways of orchestrating the voices in their lives into a coherent whole. That is, we do not necessarily expect consistency in autobiographical details and positioning over time. We suggest that children need many opportunities to narrate themselves for just these reasons—they are works in progress, and need chances to reiterate and re-narrate. They also need to be able to compose different kinds of multimodal and monomodal texts for different audiences.  


The classroom teachers with whom we work are usually neither willing nor legally able to inquire into their students’ immigration backgrounds. Indeed, the work of teachers does not and should not intersect with immigration enforcement; teachers and schools should not ask about documented status, nor should they request documentation about it (Morse & Ludovina, 1999; Willshire Carrera, 1989). These provisions did not mean teachers at Esperanza did not care about their students’ backgrounds, or indeed that they did not know about them. The provisions just meant that they were aware of the ethical and social issues surrounding our joint decision to ask children to narrate their autobiographies, and to focus, if they so desired, on their or their families’ journeys to the United States. We went ahead with the project because we had put safeguards in place to protect children who might inadvertently reveal their own or a family member’s undocumented statuses. These included human subjects clearance, letters home in English and Spanish, conversations with parents about the project, and the use of pseudonyms. The pressure on children not to offer details of their immigration status—one of the strongest competing voices some children had to narrate—was such that no child disclosed an undocumented status in their public narrations, though some did in private interviews with us, or to teachers. We did not record any information about those who did disclose their status in this way, in order to protect them from official inquiries, but we remained aware of the larger issue of immigration status in children’s lives.

Teachers facilitated this process by allowing children to skirt or omit things like their fathers’ or mothers’ whereabouts, their birthplaces, and details of their own immigration journeys that children did not want to include. This careful negotiation and balance left teachers and us wondering to what degree we might have pushed students to include more detail—more “safe” detail—to round out stories that sometimes had many gaps, but, given the ethics involved, we felt we had done as well as we could. We caution researchers and teachers who work with immigrant youth not to assume that immigration will necessarily be a pivotal moment, or even a central or important moment, to children. We also caution them that children may not feel that their school is a safe place to talk about such issues; offering the space is all we can do. We have tried to show that the particularities of assignments—what children are asked to write about, at what level of detail, for whom, and when—and the dialogic nature of language and composition all affect children’s decisions about what to say (and how to say it) and what not to say.


We want to close by discussing some ramifications for engaging in multimodal, digital composition with immigrant children, especially in the era of the Common Core State Standards (CCSSO, 2010). Narrative is one of three main types of writing in the Common Core, along with “argument writing” and “informative/explanatory” text (CCSSO, 2010). The kinds of writing we have described fit within the larger narrative writing umbrella. Indeed, one CCSS standard for writing suggests that by 12th grade, students will be able to “write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences” (p. 18). Composing videos on digital devices like iPads offers children chances to compose in potentially expanded forms—they can use photos, drawings, and images from the Internet; record their voices; make videos of themselves and their peers; add music and sound effects, etc. Writing is somewhat decentered in these projects, since, even if teachers make children write first, they often revise their ideas once they begin composing on the device. However, writing is still critical; students used writing to organize their thoughts, remember their spoken lines, and label photographs and images in their videos.

In addition, the CCSS speaking and listening standards require students to “use technology and digital media strategically and capably” (p. 7), and “to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others” (p. 17). We see engagement in such projects as fostering strategic use of available technologies and digital media, and argue that multimodal compositions foster necessary technology skills in students. Inspired by the work of Hull and Nelson (2005, 2009), and Hull, Stornaiuolo, and Sahni (2010), who have documented their efforts to have youth to create and share videos online with others around the world, we continually think about how children at Esperanza might “interact and collaborate with others” (ibid.) via their videos. The emotional health and scholastic abilities of immigrant students can only be positively influenced by opportunities for self-authoring. To connect with others, to become more aware of one’s place(s) in an increasingly globalized world, and to orchestrate competing voices—these are the potentials for multimodal, digital composition with immigrant youth to which we continue to aspire.


This research was supported by a Young American Scholars Grant from The Foundation for Child Development.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 7, 2015, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17946, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:07:11 AM

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About the Author
  • Jessica Pandya
    California State University, Long Beach
    E-mail Author
    JESSICA ZACHER PANDYA is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education and Liberal Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests include literacy, urban education, language learning, and multimodality. In addition to having published articles in Review of Research in Education, Research in the Teaching of English, and Language Arts, Pandya is the author of Overtested: How High-Stakes Accountability Fails English Language Learners” (Teachers College Press, 2011). She is co-editor of Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges (Peter Lang, 2012) and Moving Critical Literacies Forward: A New Look at Praxis Across Contexts (Routledge, 2014).
  • Kathleah Pagdilao
    California State University, Long Beach
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEAH CONSUL PAGDILAO is an MA student in the Social and Cultural Analysis of Education (SCAE) Program at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests include identity development, experiences of Pilipino Americans, and teacher education. She hopes to teach in an elementary education setting after completing her graduate program.
  • Aeloch Enok Kim
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    AELOCH ENOK KIM is a Master of Arts student at Teachers College, Columbia University studying Instructional Technology and Media. He is an educational technology professional with experience in media production and edtech research. His interests include gamification in education and use of web and mobile platforms for education.
  • Elizabeth Marquez
    California State University, Long Beach
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH MARQUEZ holds a B.A. in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Human Behavior from California State University, Long Beach. She is currently pursuing the field of Speech-Language Pathology. Her interests include critical literacy, language development, and communication disorders.
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